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From Estonia into Latvia

As with all member countries of the Schengen Agreement, border crossings are now non-events, barely marked by a sign telling you of your transition….but in the case of Estonia and Latvia, that hasn’t always been the case.

In 1917, they started the process of creating a definitive border, and brought in the services of a neutral referee, in the name of Steven Tallents, a former colonel in the British army. The major problem was satisfying all the different ethnic groups, and Tallents himself was accused by both sides of corruption and taking bribes….even of having a Latvian wife and property in Riga. Anyway, the border was finally signed off in 1927, the border (or non-border) we have today.

Ethnic mix is a big problem here in Latvia, especially with the number of Russians still here from Soviet days. There’s an uneasy tolerance between communities, but things could easily flair up given the right conditions.

I found myself catching up with two

Eurovelo routes which happened to coincide. The EV10, the Baltic Sea route, and the EV13, the Iron Curtain trail. Both are just shy of 8000km in length, and both gain most of their distance from weaving in and out of either coastlines or country borders. I have to confess I would find both of them very frustrating to follow, sometimes weaving 100km to get to a point only 50km away. Unlike a river, my basic nature is not to meander…

And I have to tell you I found yet another extraordinary pitch for my tent, just 40km out of Riga. For €5, a young guy has let me use a corner of his constructed paintball battleground, and I’ve found a covered niche amongst the BBQs and picnic tables….because presumably, in these paintball battles, they stop for lunch or refreshments now and again…. Btw, in Latvian it’s called ‘peintbola’….

Distance covered: 90km

Do you speak ‘Estonglish’?

Many countries have a word to describe the impact of English on their language, such as Spanglish, Franglais, Finglish and Denglish (German)…. I asked the campsite warden in Tallinn if Estonians had a similar word, and she thought not. So let me stake a claim to creating a brand new word on behalf of 1.3 million Estonians: ‘Estonglish’. What do you reckon its chances of making it into the Oxford English dictionary?

This has been my last full day in Estonia. I’m just 10km north of the border with Latvia, in another RMK rustic site, right beside the sea, nestling amongst pine trees. As romantic as it sounds, you have to accept that pine cones will periodically fall on your tent during the night…..but not as bad as the coconuts that fell on my cabin roof on a remote Belize island once. They frightened the living daylights out of me….

And when I thought I was far removed from native English-speaking civilisation, I bumped into a bunch of Aussie cyclists, all from Perth, and all on a fully supported ride through the three Baltic countries. They teased me, I teased them….but the banter got very serious when I mentioned the recent nail-biting victory of England in the Ashes.

“Ah, they’re still a bunch of Sheilas”, said one of the men. “Just wait till we get them on the rugger field….”.

It’s good to know that traditional enmity between the two nations is alive and well….

And before I go here’s yet another boring photo of a sunset from just outside my tent:

The magnetism of the campfire..

Last night, I finished cooking my meal, stoked up the fire, and invited a recently-arrived Romanian couple to join me. They were on a one year campervan trip around Europe, having taken leave from their jobs as clinical psychologists, and they are currently en route to Nordcapp before the winter sets in.

An hour later, two Finnish sisters came and joined us, and the stories and anecdotes flowed until I had to excuse myself to climb into my sleeping bag…..but they were set for a few more hours, such is the magnetism of the campfire, especially after sunset. And, of course, the lingua franca across all nationalities is always English. One Estonian lad said to me it was a joy to hear an English person speak genuine native English, because all he is exposed to is the ‘foreign English’ of the tourists.

Today, the cruise control was set to cover the 90km to Parnu. It was the infamous E67 all the way, with its narrow shoulder for cyclists, and it’s thundering commercial traffic heading towards the border with Latvia….and the sun was beating down with determination, driving me to seek respite in the shade every 20km..

But in Parnu, I found a pitch for my tent in a beautiful garden apple orchard, with an outbuilding containing shower, toilet and kitchen…..a perfect spot just a few hundred metres from the sea. And I can eat as many apples as I want….

So this morning, with a bag full of apples, I will set off for the Latvian border….but delay my crossing till tomorrow with the promise of a last free pitch in another Forestry Commission rustic site, this time amongst pine trees by the beach…

Heading south

A number of comments made on cycling forums about the dangers of cycling in the Baltic countries would be enough to dissuade the faint-hearted from venturing out…..however, I did well today to find a diversion that was blessed with the best cycle paths I’ve ever seen, anywhere.

Even if you feel very nervous about taking to an E road, and find the cycling shoulder a bit too narrow, there is usually a gravel track to the side, which would give you a bit more space, but has the minor disadvantages of any gravel track. You take your pick…..

To break my journey to Parnu on the coast, after 70km I decided to check out a rustic camping area maintained by the Forestry Commission (RMK has a useful app) and discovered a perfect spot. Very basic, with only well-water and long-drop loos, but there are fire pits for lighting a fire, and a ready supply of wood….so barbecued pork is on the menu tonight….who said I didn’t cook when I’m camping?

The area around the campsite is called the Varbola Stronghold, and once the site of an ancient Viking fortress.

Tallinn, Estonia

The thing about Tallinn, as with most cities of its kind, is that it’s undeniably stunning medieval historic centre is such a must-see, that the world and his dog, as well as hundreds of cruise tourists, will be there in their droves, following their guides like sheep. As you meander down cobbled streets, they come towards you in thick waves…. That, of course, is not to denigrate the value of visiting Tallinn….. I know it’s on everyone’s bucket list, and deservedly so. And if you are cycling through these parts, it merits at least a two night stopover.
So I checked into a central backpacker’s hostel, not only to find a handy base, but also somewhere secure for the bike. And I would heartily recommend the Old Town Alur Hostel….it’s well furnished, spacious and airey, and a bed in a shared dormitory only cost me €9. That is cheaper than most camping pitches, but then tonight I may have the company of the odd stag or hen party….and I won’t find that out until the small hours of the morning…
If you like history and architecture, Tallinn is awash, and it’s all confined within a historic centre, with everything just a short walk away. I got absorbed into the fast-changing circumstances of the last 100 years, and its final emergence from the grips of the Soviet Union and it’s flight into the arms of the EU, which it regards as it’s saviour from any future encroachment by Russia.
Estonia itself is only a bit-player in world affairs, with its tiny population of only 1.3 million, but it is way ahead of its European neighbours in the field of technology.

Tomorrow I head south towards Parnu, the ‘summer capital’ by the coast…..

A multi-cultural encounter

After the tribulation comes the blessing…. ‘every cloud has a silver lining’. My blessing was to be hosted by Jaakko and Irina last night.

As hosts, they were everything a guest could hope for….and much more. A salmon supper, a 90 degree C sauna, a few beers, and conversation that ranged from Finnish and Russian history (Irina is from St Petersburg), to travel, to fascinating comparisons between languages…..and it all continued into breakfast the next morning. The memories of my stay will be with me for life.

Before boarding a ferry for Tallinn, I spent a few absorbing hours in the National Museum, and then went prepared for the surprise of Central Library….

the top floor is designed like the deck of a ship, rising steeply towards bow and stern, and is popularly known as Book Heaven, where people can relax, stroll, buy coffee, admire the views and, of course, choose and read books. And it’s one of the first libraries to use robots to handle and sort books.

And so to Tallinn….

A rude awakening….

Weather forecasting: an art or a science? Like most long-distance cyclists, I rely heavily on weather apps to help with decision-making. So when I confirmed with two websites that the next 24 hours would give us nothing more obnoxious than light rain with sunny intervals, I had no hesitation about camping last night. Big mistake…huge, massive mistake… I was woken at 5am by the patter of rain….no problem, I thought to myself. The patter developed into a persistent drumming which grew heavier and heavier….then there was a blinding flash of lightening, followed immediately by a thunderous crash of thunder…..much too close for comfort, especially in a tent. I grabbed all I could and dashed the 30 metres to the kitchen hut….and within 5 minutes, some 15 other campers (mainly Dutch) had joined me in the patient wait for the storm to subside…..but it didn’t. It went on for the best part of four hours, dumping some 60mm of rain (nearly 2.5 inches), what Finland averages in a month. At 9am, I gingerly returned to my tent expecting it to be awash. I opened the flaps nervously, not sure what would find. Though completely soaked on the outside, it had remained relatively dry on the inside, which meant my down sleeping bag (amongst other things) had been saved. So before the heavens opened again, I gathered up the tent and hung it out to dry in a covered area…..and in the meantime, I accepted cups of coffee from the more fortunate who had slept in cabins and caravans, and made conversation with a variety of people from across the globe. Crises bring people together…. I headed into Helsinki along a network of forested tracks, spent a couple of hours in the City Museum, before finding my way out to Jaakko and Irina, my Warmshowers hosts for the evening.

In for a battery top up?

So I tried another tack….this time to give the bike a tune-up, but I needed professional help. In another service station, I bought a can of ‘battery top-up’, and asked the counter assistant (this time a young man) to help me with it….

“With what?” he said. Well, with the battery, I said, I’ve never done it before. So he followed me outside, stood for a few seconds looking at the bike, and said: “But it’s not an electric bike, so how can I top up the battery”.

We looked at each other, and I knew he had sussed my ruse immediately, and we just fell about laughing. So I went inside and topped up my own battery instead. Good to know there’s a sense of fun among some Finns, at least. (By the way, this battery drink has zero calories, in case you are interested).

When I left the Friendship Inn this morning, people were swimming in the lake, attending informal meetings both inside the house, and out on the jetty-veranda that jutted out over the lake…..it was beautiful.

I fell in love with the place….I was sad to leave….I hung on till midday, then had to drag myself away….there were 90km to do to Espoo….

The Friendship Inn

20km out of Turku, I noticed the old engine was not firing on all cylinders. Solution? Well, of course, I pulled into a service station for a tune-up (as you would) and a change of oil….so I ordered a can of motor oil,

but was dismayed to note the ‘natural caffeine’ was intended only for mental lubrication…..so I took it back to the counter and asked for something for the legs……the young girl didn’t immediately appreciate my warped English humour……there was a long moment of hesitation until she got it. I was happy to know that my poor attempt to be funny wasn’t entirely wasted….

Later in the day, close to being ready to find a pitch for my tent, I asked a couple at a neighbouring table if they could recommend anywhere, and they pointed me in the direction of the Friendship Inn just 8km further on. Not only did they let me pitch my tent by the lake, but they would provide supper and breakfast, as well as a sauna….and all for the princely sum of €20……which for Finland is ridiculously cheap.

Not only do they cater for passing cyclists like me, but it is a form of retreat centre for any kind of group (the staff of a small company are using it this week to sort out their future strategies), to find personal downtime, and for rehabilitation. It is unique in its kind in Finland (so they tell me) and has a refreshingly open-door welcome to everyone.

Journey through the archipelago…

No, not on the bike, of course, but on the Finnish equivalent of a ‘booze cruise’…..on a ship called the Baltic Princess, which was built as a cruise ship, but designed for the only duty-free shopping and drinking experience on the high seas…..and it has everything to do with the political independence of the Aland Islands. To qualify for such privileges, all ships have to dock somewhere in the Aland archipelago, then they can serve duty-free….

I spent most of my time getting lost on board, never able to find a loo when I needed one, then I looked for help to find my bike on the vehicle deck at the end….too much for a cyclist of very little brain….

When I cycled off this cavernous monster, I was met by a former pupil of mine and his family and, until 36 hours ago, I didn’t even know he lived in Turku….all a testament to the positive power of social media, and the strength of old friendships.

It was a delight to share a meal with them, have a sauna (a standard addition to every Finnish home), and be offered a couch for the night. Round every corner lies a suprise….all we have to do is ‘go find it’!

Good morning…!

The Aland archipelago has a curious status. You would be right to wonder whether it’s Swedish or Finnish. For me, the giveaway was the change of currency to the Euro. For centuries a bone of contention, neighbouring countries have squabble over ownership, till they finally reached a compromise…..

Culturally and linguistically, they are Swedish, but politically they are Finnish……well, kind of….you see, Finland had to accept a League of Nations decree granting the islands political autonomy …so I suppose, they have a similar status to our own Channel Isles…..independent but attached.

It was nearly midnight (Finnish time UTC+2) when I pitched my tent by the beach….watching a blood red moon rise above the horizon, then 7 hours later its buddy, the sun, rising above the very same horizon. I always thought these perfect moments only ever happened to other people….

Eastward bound

Big hugs for Jenny and Rachael as they headed to the airport, bound for their respective destinations, and I wrapped up loose ends in the AirB&B we had occupied before heading the 90km to the ferry port for Aland, a Finnish island beyond the archipelago.

I had a Stockholm SL travel card, which still had 3/4 days to run on it, so I stopped by the local station to find a lucky recipient…. A middle-easterner, probably a Syrian refugee, tentatively hung about the entrance with his aging bicycle. He had no English, but he quickly understood the good fortune of being given a travel card. I left him hoping it would solve some of his problems for a few days.

I am now waiting for a 19.00 ferry from Kapellscar to the island of Aland, where I hope to find a pitch for my tent (after dark), and switch currency from the Krona to the Euro….and hope that survival basics will be a little cheaper than in Sweden….

Biking the Baltic

…..and so begins another adventure, this time meandering my way through 8 countries hugging the Baltic Sea and beyond, visiting their capitals, sampling life along their rural byways, meeting the people, hearing their stories and sampling their food. Each country will have its own language, its own culture and history. They will each have been occupied by an alien power at some time in their history, suffered and recovered, always struggling to hang on to their own identity and self-worth as a sovereign nation….

For 45 years, many of them lay hidden behind the iron curtain, subjected to the travails of Soviet communism, largely invisible to the rest of the world. With the fall of the Soviet system, we began to discover the beauty of these small republics, their rich histories and fine architecture, and their hunger to reconnect with the rest of the world.

Some of this I hope to find out for myself as I pedal the miles and share the hospitality of locals along the way. Come along and share this journey with me…..(you can subscribe for email alerts on my web page)….

Footnote: since posting on FB, a former pupil of mine, now living in Finland, has already invited me to dinner….how serendipitous is that?

Dutch treat in Delft

In Amsterdam, a pedestrian stepped into the road and was knocked over by a tandem, sustaining bruises and scratches. The tandem captain said: “Phew you were lucky!”. “What d’you mean ‘lucky’?” said the pedestrian. “Well, I normally drive a tram…….

Let’s not be literal on this one….a ‘Dutch treat’ is yet another expression for paying your own way (are the Dutch really that stingy?)….but a riverside café was a happy chance discovery, and meeting a family group including a 99 year old gentleman was an even happier occurrence.And when I discovered he had a favourite local sweet delicacy called a hazelino, I had to have one….and he kindly posed to ‘model it’ before I dived in to demolish it.Delft is yet another classically pretty town of the Dutch canal variety, every street an open-air museum of imaginative urban planning, rounded off by a fascinating museum telling the story of the assassination of William the Silent, and the 80 year war between the Protestant rebels and the Spanish Catholic incumbents….it divided the Netherlands for centuries, and even today, there is still a demarcation line that separates the country into two halves….but now, happily, without the internecine aggression. A great finale to our Dutch adventure was to be hosted by another delightful couple, Manon (French) and Florian (German),both with widely varying interests in cycling, walking and climbing. We spent the evening refuelling on excellent food and wine, sharing our various experiences of Cuba, and debating the subtleties of urban cycling infrastructure (Florian is completing his PhD thesis on the topic). Unbelievably, when we set off for the ferry port at the Hook the next day, it was actually raining….so we donned our waterproofs for the first, and only, time…..😀

The magic…

Ah, the magic is still there (well, just)……

I’d like to brag that I danced up this 14%er like a hormonal teenager……but the reality is, it was more like a slow foxtrot…

But I have a plan. Still riding a traditional compact double, my plan is to replace my drivetrain (which is now showing signs of terminal wear) and scale down the ratios….

Not, as some are wont, by putting on a rear cassette with ‘dinner-plate’ size sprockets (they are for the off-roaders pushing a 1x set-up), but by reducing the size of the front chainwheels. Most road bikes are over-geared these days. The biggest gears can’t be engaged unless you are doing over 30-40mph….nice to have as a ‘just-in-case’, but very seldom used and, therefore, entirely dispensable.

However, getting a non-traditional compact double, outside the normal 50/34 set-up, is not easy, but I have found a supplier in Harrogate…..

…so ‘rock on’ you hills of 14…15…16…17% and up…..some of us will not be beaten!

A vilified King and usurper Queen

It is trite to say that wherever you travel in the UK, you are ‘travelling through history’…… because that is true everywhere in the world. However, around these parts, it is staggeringly easy to venture through a tiny village that spills over with significant historical events.

I have waxed lyrical before about the village of Fotheringhay, but it still prompts me to stop awhile to appreciate a little of its past. Despite its diminutive size (119 inhabitants in the 2011 census) it is famous for being the birthplace of our notorious King Richard III in 1452, perhaps the most vilified of all our kings, and whose skeleton has recently been discovered beneath a car park in LeicesterIMG_20190715_111346877_HDR

and it was in the same village that the famous would-be usurper of Queen Elizabeth I’s throne, Mary Queen of Scots, met the executioner’s axe in 1587 in Fotheringhay Castle. Sadly, the castle no longer exists, so today we gaze on the mound and  re-imagine the scene of her execution.IMG_20190715_111717785_HDR

It’s hard to imagine that this tiny community was once second in importance only to London in the 15th century……now it is a sleepy backwater deep in the Northamptonshire countryside.

Screenshot_20190715-153747

71km

 

The true meaning of ‘cake’

Over coffee and cake one day, I asked a buddy of the road how life was treating him, and he simply answered: ‘Oh, been eatin’ a lot of cake recently’…..

Meaning of course that he had been putting in a lot of miles because, as every roadie knows, miles=cakes… Well, I have to confess to the same guilty pleasure myself recently, not just because of the miles (which have been higher than usual) but also to the fact that I’ve been meeting up with groups of cronies almost every day…..which inevitably means spending half an hour collectively emptying the display counters of some distant cafés.

The last ten days have seen me cover over 500km sampling the offerings as far away as Landbeach (Ely), Earls Barton (Northamptonshire) Oakington (Cambridge) Gamlingay and Geddington. I seem to have ventured along most of the roads within a 30 mile radius….meaning, of course, I should know them ‘like the back of my hand’.

But as I came away from Cambridge today, I sought out a hidden burial ground to find the grave of a man who had figured prominently in my research for my MA thesis back in the 1970s….

and I’d like to say he was a hero of mine amongst the analytical philosophers of the 20th century, but I wish I’d understood even just 10% of his Tractatus. I’m so glad that most of his writings remained unpublished at the time….it saved me a great deal of hassle.

An Eleanor Cross..

If you don’t know the history of the Eleanor Crosses, now is the time to Google it. This one is the best preserved, and dates from the time of Eleanor of Castile’s death in 1290, built to commemorate an overnight stop when her body was being carried from the north to Westminster in London for a state burial.

Unlike most impressive stone monuments, this does not celebrate politics, war or religion…..just the faithful love King Edward 1 had for his Spanish wife….unlike the regard a certain successor of his had for his Spanish wife.

Geddington, the village where it is situated, is a fascinating medieval community. Amongst its many annual events, it has something on Boxing Day called The Squirt. Check it out…

A Firefighter’s equivalent of a ‘tug o’ war’?

65km

She’s not pedalling on the back…

Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do,

I’m half crazy, all for the love of you,

It won’t be a stylish marriage,

I haven’t got a carriage,

But you’ll look sweet, up on the seat,

Of a bicycle built for two!

This popular song, written by Harry Dacre in 1892, was believed to have been inspired by Daisy Greville, Countess of Warwick, and one of Edward VII’s mistresses.

The song, which rapidly found its way into the music halls, was timely. The 1890s was the first time that tandem bicycles had really become popular. A Danish inventor, Mikael Pedersen, is credited with the creation of the first publicised tandem in 1898, with his Pedersen bicycle. The trend quickly caught on and early machines included such names as the Humber, the Singer, the Rudge, the Raleigh, the Whitworth, and the Chater Lea.

1930 Rudge, similar to our first, costing us £10

Courting bicycles

Given the tantalising but eminently respectable closeness that a tandem bicycle allowed between the two riders, they quickly gained the moniker ‘courting bikes’, popular with couples who wanted to spend time together.

 

 

 

 

The idea behind a later design was that the gentleman would ride on the back seat and steer, while the lady could perch in the front with enough room for her skirts. That meant that all the controls were loaded to the rear passenger, and the person in front could simply enjoy the ride.

The modern inheritance of these designs can be seen in the Hase Pino

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

and the Circe Morpheus

 

where the ‘stoker’ becomes the front rider, leaving the ‘captain’ to do all the steering, braking and gear-changing.

But as ever, today out on the most popular iteration of the design, I was informed (yet again) by a bystander and a passing cyclist for the 1000th time that ‘she’s not pedalling on the back’….so Jenny did stop pedalling…..(I say no more…)

Solstician madness

What kind of collective madness brings thousands of people together on the dawn of mid-summer’s day at megaliths like Stonehenge? Ask each one of them, and you will get a different answer…..like asking different people what chocolate tastes like (apart from nice, that is). The annual call to madness gets a hold of me too, but I celebrate the moment in a rather different way.

Some 30 years ago, I began the habit of setting off on the bike at sunset, about 21.20, riding through to sunrise, about 04.45, stopping mid-ride for a rest and refreshment (which I had to carry with me) and arriving back home something after 05.00. I would crash out for a few hours and be at my place of work by 08.30, ready to take my first class. (Alastair Humphreys might call this a ‘micro-adventure‘). Since those distant beginnings, a few things have changed. One year I took a small group of students with me, encountered a mid-summer car rally at midnight (scary, to say the least), waxed lyrical over a perfect sunrise, lay down on the warm surface of a normally busy road, and ended up in the school outdoor pool at 05.30 (having climbed over the fence….). The lads jumped in and immediately disappeared beneath the thick carpet of mist covering the pool. Health & Safety, if it had existed, would have had a field day!

Castle Ashby

Another year I headed south and had a mid-ride rest outside Castle Ashby, a rather splendid country manor in Northamptonshire. The whole place was ablaze with light and music, and I’d arrived in time for a mid-summer all-nighter…… but, damn, I didn’t think lycra would have counted as fancy dress.

Another year, I again heard music wafting across the countryside, and as I wended my way along the dark lanes, it got closer and closer. At its loudest point, I stopped to look for its source, but couldn’t see any dwellings in the vicinity, until I spied what looked like chicken sheds, ablaze with light and music. I learned afterwards that light and music through the night kept the chickens laying…..

So what have I learned from years of night riding through mid-summer nights? First of all, it never fully gets dark, even as far south as Cambridgeshire, so you can actually ride through the night without lights to see by……though be ready to switch them on should a vehicle come by. Secondly, wild life never actually goes to sleep or even goes silent during the night. You have to be prepared for all kinds creatures lurking on, and beside, the road. They can scare the life out of you, dashing across your path and squawking in panic. After all, I wasn’t supposed to be there! And finally (for now anyway) the coldest moment in the night is just before the sunrise, and it will remain cool for another hour or so. So be prepared…..

Last year, I rang another change to my routine. I rode out after sunset and found a small rural redundant church to sleep in, and discovered another truth. If you have never slept in an empty church, be aware that they are not silent places. If you are of a nervous disposition, and not sure about ghosts, this may not be for you. In the morning, I stepped out to a glorious view of the sunrise across the countryside.

This year, I rang yet another change, and decided to combine it with a ‘flash-dash’ ride. This is my name for the following: you look at the forecast for the next few days, discover the weather is going to be fine and verify the wind direction, and ‘in a flash’ you decide to take a bus/train to a starting point, then start ‘making a dash’ for home (or other destination) with fine weather and the wind on your side. It’s great. This was my fifth flash-dash ride, and it never fails. Last weekend (the solstice weekend) I caught a train over to Norwich, with the promise of two days of fine weather and a tailwind all the way back home. Crazy……

The 197 km trip took me through some fascinating places like Wymondham (pronounced ‘Windum’), Thetford Forest, Mildenhall, and an array of old Norfolk and Suffolk villages with their flintstone churches and occasional ruins of priories and abbeys. And the night I camped on the perimeter of RAF Mildenhall airfield rewarded me with the most perfect sunset……and a bit of plane-spotting, to boot.

Total distance: 197 km

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